Night in the City an Underappreciated Noir Masterpiece


Night and the City (1950)

Directed by Jules Dassin

20th Century Fox, 96 minutes, Unrated





It's a film about wrestling, chiselers, and lowlife riverside dwellers. It was made in Britain and is in black and white. If this doesn't sound appealing, think again; Night and the City is one of the finest and most stylish film noir movies ever made by somebody not named Orson Welles.


Even its backstory is great. American Director Julius “Jules” Dassin was blacklisted for having joined the Communist Party in the 1930s as the movie was in production. Dassin had quit the party a decade earlier, but the Red Scare wasn’t fueled by reason.  Dassin worked around the problem by releasing the film in Britain and there was nothing zealots could do about it. Talented German cinematographer Max Greene was onboard, as was a legendary composer Franz Waxman. If you want to make something of the fact that all three of the persecuted were Jews, by all means do so.


Postwar London was as dire as the film’s deliberately gloomy backdrop. At the movie’s center is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a cut-rate conman who scurries from one bad scheme to the next. His only good call is his relationship with good-hearted Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney). Harry cares about her, but he's such a louse that he plays her like a cheap fiddle for money, ego-stroking, and refuge from his creditors.


After watching a wrestling exhibition, Henry has an idea he is certain will make him a big-time player. A famed Greek wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) is in London preparing a protégé, “Nikolas of Athens” (Ken Richmond) for an important match. Gregorius’ son Kristo (Herbert Lom) controls London’s “pro” wrestling scene, but if Harry can convince Gregorius to do battle with wrestling’s bad boy, “The Strangler” (Mike Mizurki), he can pocket a fortune from ticket sales. Gregorius will only do Graeco-Roman style, the legitimate stuff you see at the Olympics, and thus out of the purview of promoter/mobster Kristo.


Of course, Harry doesn’t have two pence to rub together, so he approaches Phil Nosteross (Francis L. Sullivan, looking like Sydney Greenstreet), the owner of the Silver Fox Club, who also runs lucrative low-level rackets. Phil jokingly offers to put up £200 if Harry can come up with two hundred more. He does so, but plays a dangerous game to get it. Phil's wife Helen (Googie Withers) offers to give Harry the dough if he can get her a license to operate her own club so she can leave Phil. Unbeknownst to Helen, Harry has one made by a two-bit forger. Helen’s classy joint is shut down before she can even open its doors.  


Phil and Kristo have already discussed ridding themselves of Harry the old-fashioned way: bumping him off. Harry’s big day expires in a puff of smoke. In a scuffle at Harry's gym–also an unauthorized operation–“The Strangler” taunts Gregorius. In a scuffle, Nikolas is thrown from the rink and breaks his wrist. An enraged Gregorius agrees on the spot to wrestle “The Strangler” by his rules. Oh-uh; that's Kristo's territory. Any big dreams Harry held vanish when Gregorius defeats “The Strangler,” but dies on a dressing room table moments later. After that, pretty much all of London except for Mary wants Harry’s hide, including Phil, Kristo, Helen, “The Strangler,” and the entire network of reward-seeking underworld rats. Henry will run, but odds are low that he can hide.


Much of the acting is melodramatic, but that’s how things were done in 1950. For what it’s worth, the three screen wrestlers also did so in real life (or unreal life, given that pro wrestling is no more authentic than a Nashville cowboy). On a more substantive level, the black-and-white used in the film is spectacular, especially Dassin’s use of contrast. Note the stripes of cool white slicing through murk like sunrays in a darkened cathedral. Dassin’s light palette compares with that used in Welles’ Touch of Evil, and that's quite a statement. Widmark is also brilliant. Viewers can tell he's a liar, but he has just enough off fast-talking smarm to hoodwink similarly edgy characters. When things go south, Widmark transforms into the equivalent of a wildebeest fleeing from a hungry lioness. Wanna bet on the outcome?


Rob Weir


The Mercies a Gripping Look at Witchcraft in 17th c. Norway



By Karen Millwood Hargrave

Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages.





Of all the books I read during the Covid lockdown, The Mercies might be my favorite. It would be best, though, to cast doubt on the book’s marketing. You will see it reviewed and advertised as a “feminist” novel. I can see how some would wish to label it as such, though it’s more akin to The Handmaiden’s Tale in that it probes the state-sanctioned subjugation of women.


At its core are a few historical facts. It is set in the island village of Vardø, which lies in the northern- and eastern-most extremes of Norway. In 1617, a sudden storm drowned most of the male population as they fished offshore. Meanwhile far to the south, in Denmark, King Christian IV–who ruled Norway, Denmark, and parts of Scotland–enacted laws the next year aimed at suppressing witchcraft. If you think that Salem was tragic, consider that the 1621 trials in Vardø and the nearby mainland town of Finnmark led to the deaths of 91 “witches,” 77 of whom were women.


Author Karen Millwood Hargrave divides The Mercies into three parts, beginning with “Storm.” In the 17th century, gender roles were prescribed not optional. Women were not legally allowed to fish, chop wood, or till fields, but what is to be done when the men are gone? Maren has lost her father, her brother, and her intended. She, her Sámi sister-in-law Diina, and villagers Sigfrid, Fru Olufsdatter, and Kirsten spearhead a move to do for themselves. This outrages traditionalist “kirke women” such as Toril who think that God and their local minister will provide until a new commissioner arrives. Most island women think, though, that when he finally arrives, “he will be like their minister, having as little impact as snow falling in the sea.” This is decidedly the most feminist section of the tale.


Hargave then cuts to Bergen in 1619, where Ursa tends to her twin sister, a consumptive, while their struggling shipbuilder father, a widower, worries that Ursa will be an old maid. He is ecstatic when he makes a match for her with Sir Absalom Cornet, a pious Scot, who will be the new commissioner in Vardø. Ursa is a city girl with no desire to head north and worries about her sister, but she has no voice in the matter. Cornet, though, is not–to allude to the quote above–the most impactful of men, especially in the bedroom. He’s not the top dog in Vardø; in old landowning systems, that role was filled by the lensmann, akin to a feudal lord. He too is stern Scotsman, John Cunningham, also known as Hans Koning.


“Arrival” details Ursa’s early days on Vardø and the campaign of Cornet–via Koning–to restore Christianity to the region, by breaking women’s self-sufficiency, obliterating Sámi symbols, and herding women back into church. And you can bet that notes are being kept on the six women who don’t attend, including Diina, whose steadfast refusal to step inside a kirke confirms Toril’s belief that all Sámi are witches. Ursa is at first socially isolated on Vardø, though hiring Maren as a housekeeper both gains her insight and a friend. Other revelations are both unsettling and imperiling.


“Hunt” is the novel’s most harrowing section, which is self-defining by the time it rolls around. It bears observing that these witch trials are at the hands of Lutherans–the state church in Norway­–not Catholics. It should also be noted that 17 of those who died were Sámi–formerly called Lapps–and that they remained second-class citizens into the 21st century and continue to battle for full equality.  


The Mercies is a nail-biting tale. As I suggested earlier, it’s a stretch to see it as feminist given its gruesome outcome. My sole critique of the book lies in a central relationship that tries too hard to be feminist and comes off as, at best, highly unlikely and, at worst, an anachronistic attempt to impose 21st century values upon the 17th. These matters are easy to overlook, though, given that Hargrave succeeds where too many fail. That is, she wraps long-ago historical events in homespun fictional yarn and makes them compelling.


Rob Weir



Judas and the Black Messiah: The Murder of Fred Hampton



Directed by Shaka King

Warner Bros. Pictures, 126 minutes, R (language, violence)

★★★ ½ 


Observe as Republicans do everything they can to assure the assault on the US Capitol goes uninvestigated. See them pile onto the Blue Lives Matter bandwagon. Watch history repeat itself. In the 1960s, movements for social justice were routinely infiltrated by the FBI which, in turn, unleashed cops to make certain the power elite remained entrenched and threats to the status quo were eliminated.


The Black Panther Party (BPP) was among the compromised groups. The titular characters in Judas and the Black Messiah, are FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and the target his puppet masters wish to put out of commission: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois BPP. That task came to completion on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police broke into Hampton’s apartment, gunned down Mark Clark, and assassinated the sleeping Hampton. In 1982, the FBI and Chicago PD silenced their deeds via a $1.8 million settlement.


The film isn’t a Hampton biopic, rather a dramatic take on the days leading up to his death. He was a charismatic figure who built coalitions. We see Hampton cross barriers to ally the Panthers with rivals such as the Black Disciples, Latinos in the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, transplanted white Southerners who flew Confederate flags. His biggest failure was with the territorial Blackstone Rangers, who are inexplicably called The Crowns in the film in a failed attempt to make them a composite of street gangs.


Hampton’s fall began with the car theft arrest of O’Neal, the details of which are altered in the film. O’Neal is handed a Hobbesian choice: go to the penitentiary, or infiltrate the Panthers and incriminate Hampton. O’Neal opted to stay on the street and accept payoffs from FBI contact Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O’Neal rose in Black Panther ranks when Hampton was busted for allegedly mugging a Good Humor vendor. The presiding judge wanted to place Hampton on probation, but was pressured to impose a 2–5-year jail term at Hampton’s May 1969 sentencing. He made bail in August, was denied an appeal in November, and was assassinated weeks later. (O’Neal committed suicide in 1990.)


The film accurately reminds us that the BPP was also an effective grassroots social agency that distributed food and provided needed social services in poor areas. Much of what we see, though, is neither correct nor fanciful, but speculative. George Sams (Terayle Hill) is also pegged an FBI informant. He might have been, but that’s not certain. Likewise, director Shaka King and his crew backfilled Hampton’s relationship with Deborah Johnson–now Akua Njeri– (Dominique Fishback), who has steadfastly declined to comment on her relationship with Hampton, whom she married shortly after she became pregnant.


Some might accuse King of making the Panthers into justice-serving avengers by downplaying incidents in which they precipitated violence. In 1969, 14 police across the nation died in shootouts with the Black Panthers and in several instances, they were victims, not initiators. That was probably the case for two officers felled by BPP member Jake Winters (Algee Smith). Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) is a fictional character, but a total of 10 Panthers died during the period covered by the film, and Winters may have succumbed to blind rage as comrades died. The film also misleads in the mater of the Young Patriots. They come across as rednecks, but they were not exactly a 60s version of the Proud Boys; they leaned to the left, not the right.


Other such liberties are taken. None negate the fact that Hampton was executed, though the exact identity of his assassins remains so murky that script writers invented names for the badged killers. Hampton got it right when he said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” But who’s your money on, ideological street warriors, or better-armed forces commanded by autocrats like J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in a cameo) and Donald Trump?


Judas and the Black Messiah got six Academy Award nominations. Kaluuya deservedly won for his portrayal of Hampton, but it’s strange to get supporting actor hardware for what is obviously a lead role. (The film’s other Oscar win was for “Fight for You” as best original song.) Overall, Black Messiah is a good-but-uneven firm. Still, you should see it, learn about Fred Hampton, and understand how injustice festers like an open wound. Aside from Hampton’s demise, the saddest thing about the movie is that it feels more like today’s news than yesterday’s history.


Rob Weir